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Israel detains hundreds amid fierce crackdown on illegal Palestinian workers

March 23, 2016 11:59 P.M. (Updated: April 22, 2016 1:23 P.M.)
A Palestinian man uses a rope to climb over a section of Israel’s separation wall that separates the West Bank city of al-Ram from occupied East Jerusalem. (AFP/Thomas Coex, File)
By: Killian Redden

BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) -- The Israeli authorities in recent days have launched a massive crackdown on Palestinians working without permits in Israel, in a campaign critics have denounced as a political game that will only deepen Palestinian poverty.

Israeli police said Tuesday that in just two weeks they had rounded up more than 1,200 illegal Palestinian workers, while last week, Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, passed into law a set of new penalties aimed at deterring their employment.

The crackdown follows a deadly attack in the Israeli port of Jaffa earlier this month carried out by a Palestinian who had illegally crossed the border out of the occupied West Bank.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quickly called for the introduction of legislation against those who “employ, assist and house people who are present in Israel illegally,” telling ministers at his weekly Cabinet meeting: “It must be understood that a large proportion of (Palestinian) attackers were present in Israel illegally or infiltrated into Israel illegally.”

However, few Palestinians attackers were in fact workers in Israel, and the recent crackdown has been condemned by rights groups as a political game, unlikely to affect the violence, yet economically harmful to both Palestinians and Israelis.

Raja Zaatry, project manager for Palestinian workers at Kav LaOved, a workers’ rights group in Israel, told Ma’an that Israeli policy had left most Palestinian laborers “politically passive” -- those with permits did not want to have them revoked, while those without did not want to draw attention to themselves.

“The Israeli government is using the issue of illegal workers to terrorize Israeli society, to tell them there is a security threat,” he said. “It’s a game of trying to make the racists happy.”

‘Human rights issue’

Last year, there were as many as 112,300 Palestinians employed in Israel and Israel’s illegal settlements -- about 12 percent of the Palestinian workforce -- according to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS).

However, because Israel sets a tight quota for the number of Palestinians issued work permits, thousands are forced to enter Israel illegally, slipping through gaps in Israel’s separation wall, seeking work with exploitative employers, and often living in Israel for long periods of time.

PCBS estimates that in 2015 there were as many as 36,400 illegal workers, although most of these were employed in the settlements.

B’Tselem said in a 2014 report: “For Palestinian workers who regularly enter Israel illegally to earn a living, life is a constant struggle for survival and returning home safe and sound from work cannot be taken for granted.

“They live in constant anxiety, fearing arrest or injury. In such a reality, labor rights such as a minimum wage, reasonable work hours, and a pension scheme seem like a distant dream.”

B’Tselem spokesperson Sarit Michaeli told Ma’an these Palestinians entered Israel unlawfully not so they could carry out knife attacks, but because they had been driven by “immense poverty and a lack of employment” inside the occupied West Bank.

“When you look at the factors forcing Palestinian laborers unlawfully into Israel, you understand why it is a human rights issue,” she said.

While Israel may be free under international law to seal its borders, she said its continued occupation of the Palestinian territory and its effective crippling of the Palestinian economy meant it was “obligated to find ways to bring Palestinian laborers into Israel.”

Israeli police forces were carrying out what they described as “intensive campaigns all across the country." (AFP/Thomas Coex, File)

‘Intensive campaigns’

The current crackdown on illegal workers began earlier this month after a deadly stabbing attack was carried out in the Israeli port city of Jaffa by 22-year-old Bashar Masalha, a resident of the West Bank village of Hajja near Qalqiliya, who crossed the border illegally into Israel.

There was no evidence that Masalha was working in Israel at the time of the attack, and Israeli daily Haaretz reported last month that since a wave of attacks against Israelis began in October, only two had been carried out by Palestinians working in Israel -- both of whom had permits.

However, at Netanyahu’s urging, the Knesset last week passed into law a set of penalties that “significantly increases fines and prison sentences for people who transport, accommodate or employ illegal residents,” a Knesset press release stated.

The new law would see Israelis who employ or provide accommodation to illegal workers for longer than two days face sentences of up to four years in prison or fines of up to 226,000 shekel ($58,900). For the first time, it will also allows Israeli police to close down building sites and other businesses employing the workers.

An explanatory note attributed the bill to a “deteriorating” security situation, saying:“There is involvement of illegal residents in terrorist activity against the citizens of Israel.”

At the same time as the legislation was being rushed through parliament, Israeli police forces were carrying out what they described as “intensive campaigns all across the country, aiming to terminate and reduce those who are in the country illegally.”

Police spokesperson Luba al-Samri said that in under two weeks, 1,200 had been detained, in addition to 150 Israelis -- “mostly Arabs” -- who had employed, accommodated, or transported the illegal workers. She said 3,150 sites, including workplaces and houses, had also been searched.

‘Poverty and unemployment’

Israel’s political establishment has eagerly backed the measures, with Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan telling the Knesset last week that the “phenomenon” of illegal workers had created “very significant dangers, particularly when we are in the midst of a wave of terror.”

Similarly, Moti Yogev of the far-right Jewish Home party said the unlawful entry of Palestinian workers had “intensified over the past few years, and so has the potential of a threat, to the point of murder, and many people have lost their lives.”

However, for Zaatry at Kav LaOved, the crackdown on illegal workers is ultimately harmful to Israel. “It’s in Israel’s interests to have these cheap workers,” he said. “We are talking about the kind of jobs most Israeli Jews would not do.”

Zaatry said that for this reason, the Israeli authorities had traditionally turned a blind eye to the issue, knowing of routes through the separation wall, yet doing nothing to seal them.

More important to him is the effect on the Palestinian economy, and the lack of alternatives for Palestinian workers. “Because of the occupation, there is no work in the West Bank,” he said. The only means of bringing bread to the table is working in Israel.

In the Knesset, where only 16 MKs voted against the legislation, the sole voices of opposition came from members of the Joint Arab List representing Palestinians with Israeli citizenship.

Palestinian MK Dov Khenin told the parliament the legislation would not reduce the number of illegal residents, “because in the reality under Israeli rule in the territories live people who are in a state of poverty and unemployment.”
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